I realise it’s been a while since I last wrote here. I think, given the current global situation, I’d like to revisit this blog and use it, once again, as a repository of my thoughts — particularly on the projects I’m working on. As creators, one the best ways to engage with our own work is to write about it. (And it gives me an excuse to do more writing!).
In 2014, I embarked on an ambitious digital adventure to create a complete student administration system for our karate organisation SKKSA. The project, called “Osaka” (after a line in a Coldplay song I was listening to at the time — Lovers in Japan/Reign of Love) enabled us to streamline a lot of our admin. It also gave me the opportunity to lean a lot about software dev and C# programming in general.
Enter Project Nexus.
Named after the original app I envisioned almost 10 years ago (Nexus), this is an entire reimagining of the student admin system. It also opens up opportunities for having a more meaningful front-end student portal. More importantly, it allows us to have a more engaging, meaningful experience in understanding our students, their progress, and more.
Envisioned as a platform rather than a collection of apps, Nexus is a system that will allow our instructors to get access to live data from training sessions, and completely streamline a lot of admin processes such as creating diplomas and enrolling new and returning students.
The platform comprises 2 major elements: a web portal, and a traditional desktop app.
Rather than using a local Microsoft SQL Server Compact database as the DB backend, we’re harnessing the power of the Web by using MySQL as the new backend. Porting over from the old DB seems to have gone fairly well so far.
More importantly, this allows us to have a more powerful web portal. This means instructors have access to important data about their clubs on their mobile. This includes access to our training syllabus, student attendance records, student contact details, and more. A future feature I have planned is a digital attendance record register, where instructors can use their phones to scan students in to sessions, and then manage that attendance data later on the desktop app.
The desktop app remains the central hub, but this time its redesigned, streamlined and powerful.
I will write more about this project in the coming days and weeks as I continue to develop it in my free time. We’re hoping to launch the first release very soon. I’m excited about the opportunities that Nexus will open up — not just for SKKSA, but as a system that can be scaled-up for commercial use in the far future.
Most architects will be familiar with the concept of BIM. Basically, BIM software allows you to manage an entire building design mostly within a single app – so from a single 3D model you can get all the drawings, specs, details, everything co-ordinated and synced (I’m obviously grossly over-simplifing this; I’ll be posting more about BIM, one of my key areas of interest, soon). But the reason I begin this post with BIM is because I think I’ve found a writing tool that, in a way, mimics those organisational characteristics of BIM.
Scrivener is an app I’ve been using for years now to manage my writing projects. I still think it’s one of the best-in-class apps for managing monstrous writing tasks – of which the architectural design dissertation is such a beast. For architects (who are generally more visually-inclined), writing is indeed a step outside our comfort zones. Scrivener, then, is like a gentle friend that guides you through the treacherous waters of design research, writing, and data collation that are the three heads of the design dissertation Cerberus.
Why bother with yet another piece of software when we’ve already got Microsoft Word to handle writing, I hear you ask? Well, where MS Word is a generally acceptable word-processor, Scrivener is a full-blown writing suite. With Word, you can get away with writing a short piece of text, like an essay. But navigating the long chapters of a dissertation – where there are thousands of words per section – can become extremely painful. You end up losing your place, you can’t always see the full structure of the project, your research has to live in a mess of folders… it’s a nightmare, in my opinion.
Scrivener, by contrast, is like BIM software: you can choose to see either the project in its entirety, or you can break it down into its smaller chunks and work on the little details (scrivenings, in this case). One of the best things about it is that you don’t write everything in a single document; you have a Scrivener project, but this is actually made up of a series of smaller files, like text files (which become your manuscript), images, notes, even whole web pages that form part of your research folder.
You organise things into folders (and it comes with a plethora of great project templates to get started; I’ve customised one of them to suit my theory and technical papers assignment in a fashion that works well for me).
Then you can set up your structure, and this is what I really like about Scrivener: it gives you some great ways of organising your writing project into the various chapters and sections. You can either use a virtual “corkboard” (like tacking a series of index cards to a board, but in the digital way), or a great outliner (which I used to put the structure of my papers together).
Everything is organised on the left panel in what’s called the “binder” – think of this as a virtual ring binder that’s highly-organised and contains literally everything you need and are working on: your manuscript, that contains the chapters and sections of the dissertation, your research, images, web pages, ideas, quotes… it’s all there.
The writing environment itself is great; there’s no distractions, and you can even go into a full-screen mode that dims everything on your desktop so it’s just you and the words on an empty, uncluttered screen.
Scrivener also allows you to set project and session targets, so you can visually (hey, this one’s for you, designers!) track your progress. It’s a great feeling when you’ve reached your session target for the day, and often I find myself wanting to push further for that day, just to nudge closer to the final project target goal.
Scrivener + Architecture Writing = 🙂
I mentioned that architects are visual people; our written work reflects this as we’re expected to have images and drawings that are referenced in text to support our arguments. Scrivener deals beautifully with this: you can set an image as the reference for a card in the Corkboard view – which is great to get ideas flowing around a certain topic or case study.
The binder-style organisation of Scrivener also allows you to keep maps and other images well-organised in folders. You can have these opened as “Quick Reference” windows that float next to your writing, so you can see them while you write. This allows you to stay focussed on the writing, and worry less about formatting and images jumping all over the place (something Word is notorious for).
So how does Scrivener fit into an effective workflow for large-scale writing projects? I see Scrivener as a writing studio (much like a BIM authoring tool, where you use it to author the design, but then take that into other tools like Photoshop to further refine the presentation). With Scrivener, I can just focus on getting the draft done; it helps me to structure complex ideas and write in a non-linear fashion (so I can quickly jump between sections as ideas come to me, without worrying about intensive scrolling through thousands of words).
For referencing, I use EndNote. Like Scrivener, EndNote allows me to see all my references together, and I can easily switch referencing styles if needed. When I want to reference something, I simply drag (or copy) that reference from EndNote into Scrivener, placing it where it needs to be in the text. The reference will look a little weird – EndNote uses a strange code system to identify text as references. (This gets fixed later, as you’ll see…)
My preferred workflow is: Scrivener (draft writing) –> Word (text-style formatting) –> InDesign (presentation and layout
Going from Scrivener to Word
Scrivener can export to a host of formats, including Word. What I’ve found, however, is that the formatting styles don’t translate very well.. For this reason, I’ve found some easy to use methods to get your draft out of Scviener, into Word, ready for formatting and bringing in to InDesign for page layout and presentation.
The problem is that you need a Word file to bring into InDesign, and to ease the formatting hassle, your Word file should be correctly formatted with styles (headings, body text, quotes etc). This allows you to quickly apply the correct fonts and styles to different kinds of text. There’s a simple go-around for this: simply export form Scrivener using a custom compile setting (see below), open the resulting Word file, then run a macros (see below) that will automatically convert the Word file into the correct styles which you can use in InDesign later.
Go to his website (link above), and download the compile setting for Scrivener; this is a .plist file that you can easily import into Scrivener at the Compile window. This will output your manuscript in a format that can be easily styled with MS Word styles (headings, body, quotes etc).
Copy the macros code, following his instruction, and place it in the Word macros editor. (Macros is just automated actions, and in this case, the instructions you’re copying into Word will allow you to easily convert your Scrivener export to the correct Word styles).
Run the Macros (Tools -> Macros -> Macros…, select “FormatScrivener”, click “Run”).
Voilà! Now, all you need to do is go to the EndNote tab in Word, and turn “Instant Formatting” on. All your references will be correctly formatted baed on your selected referencing style; a bibliography is also auto-generated at the end of the document and you can even switch between referencing styles on-the-fly. How cool is that!?
I really think Scrivener is one of the best tools out there to help navigate dissertation writing. It keeps you organised, and allows you to be flexible in how you manage such a large-scale writing task. Yes, my workflow might appear a little convoluted. But there is a method to this madness: Scrivener allows me to write the way I want to write, without the messiness and annoyances that come from working in Word. EndNote allows me to keep the referencing streamlined and organised, and everything comes together in Word, which is simply a go-between from raw text to the formatted product in InDesign.
Scrivener is available for macOS, iOS and Windows; it’s well worth the $45, and there’s a free trial as well. It’s developed by the wonderful people at Literature & Latte – click here to find out more.
Disclaimer: this is in no way a product endorsement of Scrivener; I’m simply a long-time fan of the software and thought it might be useful to any architecture students out there curious about ways to navigate design dissertation writing.
I wish I’d found out about F.lux sooner. After using this little app for just a week now, it’s already transformed the way I work with my Mac during long-haul overnight sessions with looming deadlines.
Being an architecture student, I’m well-versed in the All Nighter. This phenomenon means staring at an LCD screen for hours on end, a concept that would send any optometrist into a fit. But it’s a necessary evil, something we need to do in order to get through a mountain of work.
F.lux makes this ordeal bearable.
I was compelled to download the utility after reading about it on the Sweet Setup. What F.lux does is simple, but incredibly effective. It’s based off intense research, and whilst its method is yet to be scientifically proven, I’ve personally found that it has made my staring at the screen late into the night far easier than before.
F.lux basically adjusts your computer’s display in accordance with the ambient lighting conditions. You’ve just got to enter your location, and it will do the rest. As the sun begins to set, your screen will gradually begin to tint to an orange-reddish hue. This means that as you get deeper into the night, you won’t have to stare into the obnoxious blue glow of the standard computer screen. Of course, this isn’t conducive to any graphic-related work where colour accuracy is of importance. But F.lux has a series of options allowing customisation, so you can, for instance, disable it for an hour, or for a specific app (like Illustrator or Photoshop). From the app’s description:
“f.lux makes your computer screen look like the room you’re in, all the time. […] Tell f.lux what kind of lighting you have, and where you live. Then forget about it. f.lux will do the rest, automatically.”
F.lux goes on to claim that it can even help you sleep better. According to the developer: “We know that night-time exposure to blue light keeps people up late. We believe that f.lux adjusts colors in a way that greatly reduces the stimulating effects of blue light at night.”
Whilst I haven’t noticed changes in my sleeping pattern (all nighters for days here), I have found that using my Mac at night is now a lot easier.